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A play on words

Word artist, father, professor and plant lover. Willem Boshoff can be seen as a jack of all trades, but he is definitely a master of the arts. He inspires people through his art – even the blind – and his latest exhibition exceeds all expectations.

Willem Boshoff grew up in a small town with almost no exposure to the art world. And in those days there was no internet or even decent TV documentaries to learn more about art from. But, what he did have was an inspiring art teacher, Henry Pretorius, who sparked Willem’s interest. So much so that, as a teenager, he had no doubts about what he would like to become one day, an artist. Ultimately he has become a conceptual artist who challenges us to become much more aware of how we use the languages we live by, every day.

‘I was hungry to learn as much as I could about art. So, I made myself a series of scrapbooks with pictures and articles I cut out of the old magazines I got from the local café owners.’

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His decision to follow a career in art did not meet with wide approval. His parents allowed him to study Fine Arts only if he qualifies as an art teacher also. The result? Since 1996 he’s been a renowned teacher and a full-time practising artist in South Africa and internationally, and still has strong ties with many academic institutions. And nowadays he teaches as a fine arts professor at the University of the Free State part time.

Well-known as a brilliant conceptual artist, Willem has a huge passion for language … a passion he uses as inspiration to create different kinds of art. Sculptures in wood and granite, graphic art and large two-dimensional assemblage pieces are just some of the masterpieces he makes. But that’s not where this genius wordsmith’s talent stops.

‘I also write dictionaries, some are published and some I do in the form of artworks like The Blind Alphabet Project and The Death of Afrikaans, both on view at my retrospective exhibition Willem Boshoff: Word Woes at the Javett Art Centre. The Blind Alphabet is a three-dimensional dictionary. Inside rows upon rows of steel, lidded boxes are wooden sculptures, each a three-dimensional depiction of a particular word from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Blind Alphabet (1991 and ongoing). Inside the lidded boxes are wooden sculptures, each a three-dimensional depiction of a particular word from the Oxford English Dictionary.

‘Now, as a sighted person, I do not allow you to open the box and see the sculpture. For you, the rows of boxes are like a silent graveyard. You need a blind or visually challenged person, to get my permission to open the lid of each box, take out the sculpture and, by feeling its form, explain the concept it interprets for you. On the lid of each box, the definition of the word is presented in Braille. For the blind guide, the rows of back boxes are like an open book.’

With the combined wealth of experience of curator Helene Smuts and Willem, Word Woes is, quite simply, a must experience. The title, taken from a signature work by Willem, is understood in English and Afrikaans. In either language, the two words look identical, but their meanings differ sharply. ‘In English, it means issues of language, or the same words in Afrikaans could encourage you to take a chance … to be a little wild!’

An enormous brick wall built of letter bricks that spells out hundreds of words spelt identically in English and Afrikaans, but which have completely different meanings, encouraged this exhibition and it portrays five decades of work.

‘The original etching, through which I developed this idea, is on display and all these are everyday words, which become very entertaining when you realise how relative their meanings are.’

The etching Word Woes (2014) also inspired a letter brick wall.

‘As part of the education programme around the exhibition, we will also be developing crossword puzzles for parents and children to complete together as they move through the exhibition. The answers to clues are hidden in the artworks themselves!’

So … who is the man behind the art?

‘A plant lover who spends most of my free time reading books and listening to music. I love my collection of potted plants and nothing excites me more than working with them and classifying them by their botanical names.’

Yet, his love for arts can simply not be tamed as all his hobbies form part of his ‘interdisciplinary research and art-making.’ An antiquarian is he indeed. ‘Actually, I have a very large collection of rare objects, such as antique tools used for a wide range of purposes … from carpentry, medicine, dentistry and even including divination practices all over the world. I love all these possessions, along with my collection of books and music.’

Don’t for one moment think Willem is sitting still. He is already busy developing new art for both local and international exhibitions. We cannot wait to see what is next!

In the meantime, if you’re a lover of language, inspired by art or even someone who just merely wants to explore the absurd meaning of words and have fun, then this exhibition is just for you! It’s at the Javett Art Centre and will run until January 2022.

Details: willemboshoff.com, javettup.art, [email protected]

Visiting info:

The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Entrance is R150 for adults, R50 for children, R70 for pensioners and free for all South African university students (with a valid student card). Guided tours are available, but must be booked at least 48 hours in advance. They have various free entrance days, the next being June 16. South Campus, 23 Lynnwood Road, Hatfield. Details: 012-420-3960, javettup.art

Willem donated the work Windrose (2011) to the Afrikaans Hoër Meisieskool in Pretoria, part of which is visible above.

Willem & fatherhood:

How to be the best father for your children? To love and be there for them and to allow them to be themselves.

How do you manage to balance fatherhood and being an artist? My two worlds go hand in hand! I have four children, ranging in ages from 24 to 40. Although I never really encouraged them to do so, they have all developed careers related to the arts. Very often they have participated in the making and exhibiting of my work.

What has your father taught you? My father was a carpenter. I learnt a lot of my skills from him! And my son Martin has inherited these skills of working with his hands.

* Text: JEAN-ELIZE MARAIS. Images: SUPPLIED.

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